Play in the Middle Years of Childhood

My youngest child has recently reached the middle years of childhood and now, more than ever, I am determined to keep advocating for the importance of play.

Whilst This Playful Home originally started as a place for parents to embrace the power of play in the early years, increasingly you’ll notice that my blog posts have activities that are perfect for the middle years and beyond.

In my opinion, children grow up too quickly these days. There’s a lot of pressure to get good grades and the lure of social media and screen time. However, play still has it’s place and it’s important that children are encouraged to follow their interests. This is the responsibility of us as parents and educators too.

More than ever, parents are under pressure. Whilst I hoped that the pandemic would highlight that working from home is possible, I know that attitudes of employers and society at large hasn’t changed enough. That pressure often means that children have fewer opportunities to play, especially in the middle years of childhood.

a front cover image of the Play Issue of The Green Parent

Last year, I was interviewed by Green Parent Magazine and I was asked why play is important for older children. Here’s what I said about the importance of play in the middle years of childhood.

As my children grow older, I have started to reflect on play in middle childhood and beyond. On the whole, society seems to expect children to grow up quickly and stop playing in favour of academic pursuits and organised sports.
Play is often seen as a time filler between more important activities, but play is the most important activity for all stages of childhood. Plenty of time for play should be given to children of all ages so that they can explore their own interests without the pressure of ‘getting results’ or ‘winning’. When you start to delve in to the true purpose of play it’s undeniable that, more than simply being a fun way to spend time, it is the way that our children should be learning and this doesn’t stop by the time children reach five.
Mildred Parten’s Six Stages of Play can help us to understand how play evolves over time and it is only when our children reach the age 4.5 years that they start to play in a cooperative manner. This is  why I don’t think it make sense for an emphasis on play to stop after the early years because play in the middle years helps our children to learn social skills, problem solve, empathise with others, negotiate and collaborate with others plus more besides – all of this is vitally important throughout life!
When I read of schools taking away play time in favour of more academic learning, I worry about the general wellbeing of our children. I believe that play is not only important for older children but it is important for us as adults too. As Stuart Brown M.D says in his TED talk ‘Play is More than Just Fun’, ‘The opposite of play is not work – the opposite of play is depression’.


a 6 year old girl puts the finishing touches to a winter play space


3 Ways to Encourage Play in the Middle Years of Childhood

This Playful Home helps parents to embrace the power of play in three made ways – and it’s no different for the middle years of childhood.

1. Establish a Family Rhythm

It’s very easy to pack in too many extra-curricular activities in the middle years of childhood. Ensure that your child has regular ‘down-time’ to play independently; with friends/ siblings; pursue their own interests and relax by taking stock of your days, weeks and months. Children shouldn’t have a schedule where every hour of the day is accounted for with an activity.

You can find out more about the importance of rhythms here. 


a black and white image of a 7 year old girl and her 5 year old brother playing with a grimms wooden rainbow and loose parts. There's plenty of opportunities to play in a creative way during the middle years of childhood.

2. Continue to provide space for play at home

Older children might not need as many toys as children in the early years, but providing a designated space for play is still important.

This doesn’t have to be a big play space – just a few shelves will suffice in their bedroom. Fill them with open-ended toys and small world items – like the dollhouse featured below.

Also consider purchasing an art cart or having a designated space for more creative endeavours.

play in the middle years of childhood looks more sophisticated. Here a dollhouse has been renovated for a 7 year old girl's birthday

3. Understand the importance of play – throughout life 

Play doesn’t have an expiry date and just because a child is only than 5, it doesn’t mean that they are now ‘too old’ to play. Play continues to be important in the middle years of childhood and beyond.

Here are some of the ways that play might start to look a little different in the middle years of childhood :

  • Play dates independent of you
  • Longer durations of independent outdoor play
  • Games with rules – this doesn’t mean football or an organised sport, but games where the children have come up with the idea and subsequent rules.
  • Time spent practising a hobby or sport – e.g. a football mad child might practise ‘keepie uppies’ or similar at home in the back garden
  • Artistic and more elaborate versions of play – e.g. the flat lay picture below

a flat lay picture of a town that has been created by a 7 year old girl. It features tall buildings, houses, people and the sun - all made from loose parts and open ended toys


Sometimes, our own attitudes towards play can impact how we view its importance for our children. You can read more about the power of play here. 

And what about play beyond the middle years of childhood?

Beyond the middle years, play is essentially the hobbies we do. My eldest son now spends his spare time painstakingly putting together and painting his Warhammer collection.

The bottom line? I’ll repeat the words of Stuart Brown M.D:

 ‘The opposite of play is not work – the opposite of play is depression’.

Play is More than Just Fun’,

Little children need play, children in the middle years of childhood need play – and so do you and I!

Blog Posts to Read Next

Play doesn’t stop when the middle years of childhood start. If you’re looking for more ideas, try the following blog posts.

Dollhouse Makeover

10 ‘Must-Have’ Open-Ended Toys to have in the play space 

10 IKEA playroom favourites 

Winter Mud Kitchen: 20 simple ideas 


Sian Thomas
an image of This Playful Home founder, Sian Thomas. The photo includes a photo of her daughter when she was around 18 months old

I’m Siân (rhymes with yarn), a play advocate, proud parent to three, and former teacher. My mission is to infuse more joy and less overwhelm into the lives of parents. Discover play-based activities with me that not only make learning FUN but also forge deep connections with your young learners, creating memories to cherish forever.